Consolidated Power

Consolidated Power

1 Kings 2:26-46

by Daniel Harrell

I pick up where I left off two weeks back, with King Solomon loyally executing the dying and deadly wishes of his famous father, King David. The whole scene is straight out of The Godfather. An aged and decrepit David, with determined yet labored breath, instructed his heir to rub out his cousin and former army general. “You yourself know what Joab did to me,” David said to Solomon, “He murdered two of my commanders. The stains of his guilt are upon him. Act according to your wisdom. Do not let his gray head go down to his grave in peace.” “And while you’re at it,” David continued, “don’t forget Shimei the Benjaminite. He cursed me with a terrible curse. I swore by the Lord to love him as my enemy. I would not kill him with the sword. So you kill him.

This is not the sort of thing you want your kids hearing in church or reading in Sunday School. The 5th century Church father Cyril of Alexandria refused to translate this passage for new converts. The context is succession to the still-united throne of Israel and Judah. Solomon’s older brother, Adonijah, had asserted his own claim to the crown with support from Joab the general and Abiathar the priest. Both rightly assumed the eldest son to be next in line. Neither knew David promised the throne to Solomon. Apparently David forgot that too. Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, along with Nathan the prophet, conspired to goad the waning, senescent King David into abiding by an oath he may or may not have made. Adonijah relinquished his claim and Joab shifted support to Solomon—though both Joab and Adonijah are executed in the end.

The deaths of Joab and Adonijah, as well as Shimei’s along with the banishment of Abiathar the priest, were tied to crimes, curses and ancestral blunders—but in a manner that raises suspicion. Events of the past suddenly matter in ways that they had not mattered before. These men became political threats to the throne tying David’s dying wishes, as well as Solomon’s living ones, to the preservation of power. Granted, the Lord did promise David that his throne would endure forever—but the specifics as to how this perpetuity would transpire were left out. It took too much, it appears, for these men of God to trust the Lord to work out the details. Because God stays silent in this chapter, David and Solomon seem to take it upon themselves to see that God’s will be done—even if it be done in an ungodly manner. Danielle showed last Sunday with Jeroboam, the accidental heir to the upper half of King Solomon’s throne, how hard it can be to wait on the Lord when things aren’t going your way. The Lord, who is slow to anger, can be too slow to help when we need action now.

Solomon viewed his stepbrother, Adonijah, as an expendable menace. Abiathar the priest was a problem too because he had supported Adonijah. David left no final instructions regarding Abiathar’s fate, but wise King Solomon was no dummy. He defrocked Abiathar and banished him to the countryside, declining to kill him only because he’d “carried the ark of the Lord GOD before my father David, and shared in all the hardships my father endured.” Somehow this banishment fulfilled the word of the Lord spoken concerning Abiathar’s ancestor Eli, another priest whose sons had dishonored the Lord back in 1 Samuel by failing to abide by Leviticus when it came to proper worship. People really should read that book.

As for Joab, he supported Adonijah’s claim to power, but the author goes out of his way to state Joab did not support Absalom, Abasalom, another son of David, made a blatant and violent attempt to steal his father’s crown. This mention stresses how supporting Adonijah was Joab’s “first offense” in an otherwise blameless track record of loyalty to King David. No matter. One strike and you’re out. Solomon eliminated Joab, despite a lifetime of loyalty and even though he sought sanctuary in the tent of the Lord. The Torah made it clear that sanctuary was only good for crimes unintentionally committed. Solomon takes out Joab for murdering two army commanders decades prior, even though it had been for David’s protection. There’s no doubt Joab committed the murders, but why do justice now? There’s a Machiavellian stench in the air, an odor we smell in politics all the time. Political expedience often gets dressed up in respectable clothing and presented as something better than it is. The ends justify the means; though this being the Bible, would it hurt to make the means appear more just? Couldn’t these Bible characters act, you know, a little more Biblical?

It’s a fair question. Unless you’ve read the Bible. Shimei indeed cursed King David, but upon realizing his offense, threw himself before David, repented and begged for forgiveness. David forgave—as we’d expect—but he did not forget. Why the sudden recall here of the forgiven offense? Because political necessity never forgets. Solomon put Shimei under house arrest because his kinfolk had aspirations of power. Shimei was instructed, “on the day you go out, and cross the Kidron Valley, know for certain that you shall die; your blood shall be on your own head.” Shimei agreed to the fairness of the sentence, but then three years later, when two of his slaves ran off to a town called Gath, Shimei hopped a donkey and chased after them. Solomon found out and had Shimei killed for breaking his parole. The problem is that if you look at a Bible map, you’ll note that Shemei did not cross the Kidron Valley. Gath was due west of Jerusalem. Something smells suspicious here too. At the end of our passage, rather than affirming God’s justice in these matters, the punchline reads, “the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon,” Control was now tight in his grip.

It’s a power play thinly disguised as a morality tale. Each threat to Solomon’s throne gets wiped out on a technicality. Technically each was guilty, but run a fact checker and you’ll find the circumstances a bit too convenient. Justice comes only when needed once Solomon’s succession seems dubious. It’s a maneuver we see all the time, over and over again throughout history, everywhere, everyday—an incessant replay akin Bill Murray’s version of Groundhog Day (six more weeks of winter looks like). We see it in rigged elections used to legitimize illegal coups all the way to the fudging of facts and figures for the sake of applause in a State of the Union Address.

I mention the latter, of course, since President Obama overstated and cherry-picked a bit this past Tuesday in his own State of the Union. Factchecker.org noted how the President’s claim that his policies allowed businesses to create “more than 8 million new jobs” in the last four years was technically true, but go back five years (to Obama’s first term) and add the loss of government jobs and he’s still in the red. The Affordable Care Act technically signed up more than 9 million Americans for private insurance or Medicaid, but Medicaid counts renewals as well as new enrollees in its figures. The U.S. “reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth,” said the President. Technically true, but then again, the U.S. produces a lot of emissions. Looking at percentage change, dozens of countries did better. And on and on. Politicians concerned for their poll numbers have to make light shine however they can. By all accounts our President’s had a bad year—from the flawed healthcare roll-out and the Edward Snowden revelations to the failure to get anything passed on his legislative agenda and his waffling over whether the Egyptian coup was a coup. With this vein an election year, Republicans smell  blood in the water, especially with Senate control within reach.

Some of you are now probably planning and assault on the preacher after the service. “No politics from the pulpit! Just give us the Bible.” Except there are plenty of politics in the Bible. King Solomon was technically in bounds when it came to exiling Abiathar and executing Joab and Shimei for misdeeds of the distant past. But the fact checker shows these to be happy coincidences. Settling past scores eliminated threats to his throne. It’s been like this as long as governments have been run by humans. In a recent interview, President Obama admitted, “we inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past.”

“OK, preacher man, if you insist on talking politics, stop wallowing in your weekly sea of ambiguity! Whose side are you on?” To which I reply, “I am on the Lord’s side!” —along with every king and ruler and pastor and pedestrian who’s ever invoked God’s name as justification for their actions. I want to do the right thing. Believing in Jesus does not automatically make my choices honest or my actions moral., but it does instill within most believers the desire to do the right thing. “I know I’m right in my heart,” we’ll insist, as if that settles matters and motives. But as the prophet Jeremiah warned the kings and countrymen of his day: “The heart is more deceitful than anything else. It is incurably evil. Who can understand it?”

A concern for understanding and doing what’s right often drives people to the minister’s couch for counseling. Someone will present their case and then their rationale for how they know what they did was the right thing to do. It’s then my turn, some would say my job, to affirm the rationalization, but if I counter with a contrary perspective, or even the possibility of self-deception, it’s not unusual for the person to collapse into a heap of sarcastic self-condemnation: “So I guess I’m just a bad person!”

To which I usually reply, “Why yes you are!” (Clearly I skipped Pastoral Counseling 101.) But this reproving voice is not my own. It comes from the Gospels and from Jesus himself. Our Lord often made use of what we call an analogy from the lesser to the greater: If something is so in this little way, how much more so will it be in this greater way. Jesus once posed, “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asked for bread, would give her a stone instead? Or if your child asked for a fish, would you give her a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give what is good to those who ask him?” Note how Jesus labeled his audience that day: “You who are evil.” At first we wince at these words. While by comparison to God we’re not that good, are we really that bad? If so, the conclusion might be, if we’re so bad why bother? But this conclusion would miss the point. Even though you are evil, you are still capable of doing good. You feed your children fish and bread instead of snakes and stones. Even though you are evil you can still forgive people who hurt you, you can put others’ needs ahead of your own, you can make good decisions and sometimes do the right thing; even in the midst of the wrong thing, even if you don’t manage to do the best thing.

This means that even our President, our Senators and our representatives, who are evil, can still make what turns out to be the right decisions regarding immigration or economic disparity or healthcare or Afghanistan or Syria or the NSA, despite all the current political maneuvering and machinations. Though “we inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” Obama said, “we [can] inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears too.”

King David and King Solomon, who were also evil, appear to have been motivated more by their concern for preservation of power than by moral justice. They did good things, united the kingdoms, but the effects of their murky motives do emerge in the eventual failure of Solomon, in the division of his ruling house and in the total collapse of Israel’s monarchy. However God keeps his promise. His guarantee that David’s throne would endure forever can not be thwarted. It’s true King would come in Christ our King, crowned King of kings and Lord of lords, eternal ruler of a kingdom of genuine justice, true righteousness and pure motives and whose spirit inspires us to pray for and do his will on earth as it is in heaven. If you who are evil can do good things, how much more good God does—even when we do bad things. The apostle Paul celebrated as much when he wrote to the Romans, We know that God causes “all things to work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Believing in Jesus may not automatically make your choices honest or your actions moral. But Jesus does guarantee that in the end the Lord himself will take whatever is done and make it right. The Bible calls it redemption. And for us who are evil, it is power for good.